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January 28, 2009

USC thumps Commodores

Play hard every game? Check.

Protect the home court? Check.

Win at the buzzer? Check.

Rally for another win after blowing a 13-point second-half lead?

After Wednesday -- thanks to Devan Downey -- double check.

Downey scored 12 of his team-high 18 points in a dizzying seven-minute stretch on Wednesday, shattering a South Carolina cold spell and propelling the Gamecocks to an 86-76 win over Vanderbilt. It was USC's third straight win, all at home, and sent the team into a vicious two-game stretch riding a wave of giddy enthusiasm.

"I'm saying we responded to (the lapse) well," coach Darrin Horn said. "Don't want that to happen again, more than we need it to. Good of us to handle that and to respond."

USC (15-4, 4-2 SEC) accomplished its goal -- winning all three games of a homestand before taking to the road for back-to-back games at No. 24 Kentucky and Florida. Wednesday was the final piece, a milestone win not just for the end of the home stretch but for what it also represented for the program.

The Gamecocks have won three straight SEC games for the first time since the 2005-06 season. They've also passed the overall win total of each of the past two years with at least 11 games left to play.

Heady stuff, but USC's trying to remain grounded. Although the next two games are extremely formidable, Horn and his Gamecocks aren't concentrating on that.

"We don't ever talk about the next two games, ever," Horn said. "We talk about tomorrow, talk about our next opponent."

"He just told us, 'Good win,'" forward Dominique Archie said. "We got to get the next one."

Wednesday was for celebrating Wednesday. The win was in danger for a little while, until the latest episode of The Downey Show premiered.

Leading 45-32 after Archie drilled a 3-pointer, the Gamecocks were enjoying a rare cruiser over Vanderbilt, which had won the previous five in the series. Stud Commodores center A.J. Ogilvy was locked into an awful evening, fighting the after-effects of an illness.

But Vandy (12-8, 1-5) still found a way to battle back. After USC began missing and missing, the Commodores' Jeffery Taylor took over.

Taylor scored seven of his career-high 23 points in a two-minute spurt to bring Vandy within three points, 45-42. Jermaine Beal hit to pull the Commodores within a point and when Brad Tinsley aced both ends of a one-and-one, Vandy led 46-45.

The Gamecocks had missed 11 straight shots but Evka Baniulis broke the jinx with a wide-open 3-pointer. Tinsley answered on the other end with a 3 and Vandy led 49-48.

Downey only had six points at that time and while the Colonial Life Arena crowd was still into it, the Gamecocks looked lost. Following a timeout where he received some instruction from Horn and then almost ran over his coach to get back in the game, the junior guard returned and did what he does.

"Coach just lets me play," Downey said. "I feel like the whole run started with me not bringing any defensive intensity in the second half. He sat me down for a few minutes; I had to come back in the game and lead my team."

Most of it seemed unfair.

First, Downey made both ends of a one-and-one, no small feat considering USC was 32-of-49 from the stripe all night. Then he hit one of those shots for which he's become famous, spinning inside and lofting a soft rainbow over Ogilvy, Festus Ezeli and the rest of the Commodores' towers.

Then two more free throws, followed by a drive inside and a quick flip to Sam Muldrow for a reverse layup.

Now cooking with a 59-49 lead, Downey kept finding his teammates. Zam Fredrick collected an NBA-range 3-pointer and Downey finished with two more soft jumpers.

Vandy's bodies were as black as their uniforms, torched by a flurry of unanswered points. Taylor kept scoring until he fouled out but the rest of the Commodores had little choice but to accept their fourth straight loss.

"(Downey)'s a guy that's capable of taking over games, and he took this game over in the second half," coach Kevin Stallings regretted.

Archie followed Downey with 17 points while Fredrick had 11 and Brandis Raley-Ross had 12. The Gamecocks took advantage of 22 turnovers and only committed 10, blocking five shots and overcoming another so-so night at the charity stripe.

Statistics aside, it was another big win. USC is a game behind Kentucky and Florida (each 5-1) for the SEC East lead, and Kentucky and Florida are the next two opponents.

Not that the Gamecocks are thinking beyond Kentucky on Saturday.

"Obviously you need to win on the road," Horn said. "You want to be good, want to grow your program, that's something that's got to happen."

"We go in, we play like we're capable of playing, we won't have any problems," Archie said.



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